Taking Liberties: Fishermen Cast Wide Net in Fight to Save Bass, Trout

On Monday, Jim Hardin was casting his 6 foot spinning rod in the Roanoke River off of the town of Plymouth in the northeast corner of North Carolina.

“Woe, look at that,” he said as he reeled in a 24-inch Striped Bass.

“Fishing is everything to me,” he said later, recalling how his maternal grandmother taught him how to fish for stripers when he was 8 years old.

“I really want the sport to survive,” he added. “And right now, I’m not so sure it will.”

At issue for Hardin is Net Trawlers, the boat of choice for North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry.

“Net Trawlers are a huge problem for game fish,” he said, explaining the big nets catch huge amounts of fish, indiscriminately. He says they then discard anything over a state-set limit, often killing thousands of sport fish instantly.

In fact, this past month residents on North Carolina’s coast were appalled by photos and videos of massive fish kills caused by net trawlers.

“It’s terrible seeing all those fish,” said Bruce Thompson, who like Hardin is a member of the Coastal Conservation Association. CCA is now the leading group pushing for greater protection of game fish.

Their proposal includes granting “game fish status” to striped bass as well as Red Drum and the Spotted Trout.” It’s a designation that limits catches to “hook and line,” and makes catches by net trawlers illegal. It would also prohibit any commercial sales.

“It’s outrageous” says Sean McKeon, president of NCFish.org, the main group opposing the proposal.

“This essentially means you can’t buy any of these fish in a fish market. You can’t buy them at a restaurant. In order to eat one, you would have to catch one yourself. That’s outrageous.”

McKeon says CCA has a “hidden end game,” which is to get rid of net trawlers altogether.

“This is a very, very serious effort to ban the most regulated and the most discriminating industry that we have, which is net fishing in North Carolina, “ he said

At the same time, McKeon predicts it will put many of North Carolina’s commercial fisherman out of work.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “what we have here is a group of very self-centered elitists who believe their fun is more important than a man making a living and feeding his family.”

Hardin vigorously disagrees, pointing out Striped Bass, Red Drum and Spotted Trout make up only 2 percent of the commercial fishing catch in the state.

“This would hardly make a dent,” he said.

And besides, he says, the revenue from tourism of game fish dwarfs what the commercial industry makes off them.

“The state brings in 150 times more revenue on tourism from these fish,” he said, adding:

“The fact is, these species are much more valuable to the citizens of the state
of North Carolina as recreational-only fish.”

Hardin says his proposal could go through the State House next year and could be law in 2013.